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Ludwig van Beethoven. Complete Piano Sonatas, vol.6.


Text of the booklet "Ludwig van Beethoven. Complete Piano Sonatas, vol.6. IGOR TCHETUEV"

Beethoven’s early chamber music occasionally includes ideas that are only fully developed in his subsequent masterpieces. For instance, the contrast between Sonata No.5 in C minor and Sonata No.6 in F major, the first two in the triptych of op.10 piano sonatas of 1796 to 1798, can be seen as a foretaste of another well-known pair of antipodes composed at a later date – the Fifth and Sixth (Pastoral) Symphonies, written in 1808 in the same keys, C minor and F major. Any comparison of the Fifth Sonata and Fifth Symphony remains provisional, since the former is far more modest and laconic. However, we cannot doubt the pastoral characteristics of the Sixth Sonata, although the spectrum of images and moods was never intended to compete with the lyrical epos of the Sixth Symphony.
In the second half of the 18th century the key of F major was often used to denote pastoral subject matter. These could be se-cular, ‘galant’ (refined peasant characters from an opera or ballet scene) and pastoral-religious (the pastoral theme is associated with Christianity in the concept of Christ the Good Shepherd or the story of the Nativity, where shepherds come to worship the infant Jesus). From the outset the choice of this key directed the sensibilities of both performer and listener towards gratifying simplicity, carefree playfulness and amicable interaction surrounded by nature perceived as welcoming and friendly. All this might be briefly interrupted by minor quarrels between lovers, light rain showers or a melancholy ballad sung by an itinerant bard. Such pleasant dreams were well suited to long evenings in comfortable Viennese drawing rooms, in the dim twilight or lit by bright candle flame… It could be said that musical romanticism was born here, in social circles that united the inhabitants of spiritual Arcadia – a pastoral paradise that never existed, populated by brilliant creators and their admirers, who were transported by art into a world contrived by the dream of harmony between man and nature.
Sonata No.6 is a particularly harmonious composition whose unpretentious exterior conceals a truly aristocratic subtlety of taste. We cannot call such music insignificant, although the composer carefully avoids deliberate complication. After all, it was not written for a professional pianist, but for a high-society dilettante, the Countess Anna Margarete von Browne (1769–1803), wife of Count Johann (Ivan Yurevich) Browne-Camus (1767–1827), a brigadier at the Russian military mission in Vienna. Notwithstanding, each bar of the sonata betrays the hand of a great master who is unfailingly inventive, in general and in particulars.
The Sonata Allegro is infused with playful grace, yet not devoid of genuine warmth (the melodious second theme). The miniature exposition contains an entire romance, from lighthearted flirtation to whimsical quarrels and derisive reconciliations with mutual taunts. Increasingly dark tone-colour can be perceived as the interference of nature in relations between the principal characters, or as mounting disagreements. Although it stops short of a veritable tempest, and in the reprise the sunshine reappears. In the absence of any dramatic contrasts, the Sonata Allegro delights with a play of chiaroscuro perceptible in every bar. Each and every second is richly saturated by constant change in musical texture, register, dynamic contrast, density and articulation.
The second movement anticipates romantic ballads and ‘songs without words’. Structurally, too, it is reminiscent of a lengthy song – in ternary form with minor variations in the repetition of sections. The pervasive tenebrous melancholy has a narrative function. As if a bard softly sang of legendary adventures long ago – grim ancestral knights, a delicate pale-faced beauty in the unassailable tower of a gloomy castle, love blossoming like a flower on a lofty clifftop… These image associations are not unfounded. Both Beethoven and his audiences were well aware of ‘The Works of Ossian’, a brilliant hoax by the Scottish poet James Macpherson, who devised a realm of Celtic heroes with the declamations and songs he attributed to them that matched pre-Romantic sentiments prevalent in the late 18th century.
The lively dance-like finale of the sonata (in contredanse rhythm) seems full of bucolic cheer. However, the main theme of the finale is more complicated. It is constructed as a fugato and then extensively developed with rich modulations and motivic elaboration. Even when Beethoven’s intention was to write music that was relatively straightforward and unassuming, the world he created was vivid, intense and structurally complex. 
Sonata No.9 in E major (op.14, No.1) was composed between 1798 and 1799, forming a diptych with Sonata No.10; both were dedicated to Viennese music lover Baroness Josephine von Braun (1765–1838), the wife of banker and theatre director Peter von Braun. As far as we know there was no special relationship between the Beethoven and this lady – possibly he wished to curry favour with her influential spouse, although this proved unsuccessful: Braun never became an admirer of the composer’s work. Bearing in mind that the sonatas would be played by amateur pianists of the fair sex, Beethoven clearly aimed for simplicity, although he had no intention of resorting to the mediocrity of so-called ‘good taste’. Like Sonata No.6, the two op.14 sonatas are coloured by a fresh perception of nature as the source of all happiness, whether it is the play of light on spring leaves, enchanting birdsong or suddenly falling in love.
The choice of E major for Sonata No.9 is quite unusual. Every important composer of the 18th century interpreted this musical key in his own fashion, be it exotic and emotional (Handel), mystical (Bach) or passionate and sensuous (Mozart). In Beethoven’s work the key of E major is usually linked to images of a starry sky and nocturnal meditations. The composer was apt to write lyrical music in this key: slow movements of instrumental works or songs based on exalted, melancholic texts. Sonata No.9 is one of the few exceptions: here the key appears ‘diurnal’ and ‘sunny’, joyful and even excited, imparting a heady aroma of something primordial and new. Strangely enough, when Beethoven transcribed this sonata for string quartet from 1801 to 1802 he altered the key to F major, which is easier for string instruments and more pastoral in tone, as if silently emphasising that the sonata was among his images conveying the poetic appreciation of nature.
The main theme of the first movement soars towards the radiant heavens like a skylark; the second theme with its capricious chromatic scales is reminiscent of a fragile flower or shy beauty longing to retire to the shade. Lively and even march-like intonations appear in the closing group – without any belligerence, simply brimming with youthful exuberance. In a rough draft of the development Beethoven added a reminder to himself: ‘Without elaborating the theme’ – instead of the customary fragmentation of the material and skilful use of the resulting motifs the compo-ser introduces a new theme with the impression of a lyrical explosion of feeling, filled with passionate ecstasy and secret pain. But this ‘Werther-esque’ burst of emotion is not followed by tragedy; in the reprise we again admire the beauty of this world, and the coda brings blissful tranquillity with drowsy murmuring in the lower register.
The middle movement, the E-minor Allegretto, serves the function of both a song-like Andante and a dance piece such as an unhurried scherzo or minuet. This treatment is not unique in Beethoven’s early sonatas, and comparable central movements that are both lyrical and lively can be found in Sonatas No.6, 10 and 14. The ternary form with a major-key trio and ordered re-petition of the sections adds restraint and inner austerity to the lyricism: this structure prevails over the elemental force of emotion that only breaks through in dissonant harmonies, sharp accents and insistent repetition of expressive phrases.
The finale restores us to a vernal state of mind, where troubles seem to melt away and there is a childlike desire to frolic and play mischief. There are several musical ‘tricks’, beginning with the intentionally nonchalant construction of the main theme with an awkward melody accompanied by hurried triplets, and ending with buffoonish attempts for a fugato in the transition, or reckless melodic leaps in the second theme. A proper sonata form would be too serious for such pranks, and Beethoven confines himself to a classical rondo with a burlesque contrasting episode in a minor key that calls to mind a chase where the prey is never caught… Maybe this can only happen after the reprise, in the last bars of the finale. But even that is a game in which the loser laughs as uproariously as the winner.
Having written his first eleven sonatas by the end of the 18th century, fully mastering the genre and using it as his own original means of expression, Beethoven embarked upon some very bold experiments. It seems the young genius felt cramped and bored by the usual restraints of the classical cycle and began setting himself tasks, each more paradoxical then the last. Could a sonata exist, properly speaking, without sonata form?  What would happen if it began with a slow movement? If a funerary march were added to the sonata, instead of the usual Andante or Adagio? Or if the Sonata Allegro was interrupted by an opera recitative?
Mozart, Haydn and other contemporaries of Beethoven also took liberties with the sonata genre. But none conducted long-term experimentation in their sonata compositions comparable with his Sonatas No.12 to 18, where only Nos.15 and 16 keep to a relatively familiar form and all the others contain significant deviations from accepted norms.
True enough, as a master of the German school who always knew exactly which rules he was breaking and for what reason, Beethoven usually explained his creative license in titles or genre designations.
Thus the two sonatas op.27 composed in 1801 bear the description ‘Sonata quasi una fantasia’ on the title page. The phrase is frequently abbreviated to ‘sonata fantasia’, although this falls short of the true meaning: ‘sonata like a fantasia’. Beethoven’s concept of a fantasia is completely irregular, incommensurate with any given definition and exceeding all formal li-mitations. Here our reference point is the sonata pattern, of which the composer had a rather free interpretation, as demanded by the concept – or, as Beethoven’s contemporaries would say, the ‘poetic idea’.
Sonata No.13 in E flat major (op.27, No.1) enjoys far less popularity than its ‘sister’ in the opus – the famous Sonata No.14, otherwise known as the Moonlight Sonata. But there is just as much fantasy here. Although the work is based on a four-movement scheme, the forms of several movements (the first and third) are unusual, and the distinctions between movements are deliberately obscured: in fact they are all performed without interruption, attacca, and listeners hearing such music for the first time may be unsure whether they are hearing the next section of the same movement, or the beginning of a new movement.
The first movement is a rare case of a classical sonata that does not begin with a Sonata Allegro. Beethoven writes a rather slow rondo in tempo Andante, with a sharply contrasting second episode. Haydn had already included something similar in his own sonatas, but Beethoven’s pre-Romantic moods are far more trenchantly expressed. The music seems to appear from now-here, from a mysterious silence (a hanging six-four chord with no bass support and a softly beckoning minor third motif in the melody). This alluring call gradually unfolds into a hymn-like melody and suddenly the pious mood is replaced by a boisterous game (the episode in C major with a change of time signature). A strange scherzo bursts into the vaguely dissolving chords of the coda – Allegro molto e vivace, which, if played separately, could easily hail from a set of early Beethoven bagatelles. This movement is written in the traditional ternary form with trio, but with the return of the first theme rather harsh octave unisons abruptly acquire whimsical syncopations: the voices are distanced from one another by one eighth, as if split in a dual personality, or like a shadow that assumes a life of its own.
The initial melodic phrase of the slow movement, Adagio con espressione, calls to mind the analogous theme of the Largo in Piano Concerto No.3, which Beethoven composed at about the same time. Both movements anticipate the romantic nocturnes with their sensuous dive into the ravishing chasms of lovelorn languor, amid a mysterious nocturnal landscape. In the Sonata No.13 Adagio the atmosphere is even gloomier than in the Largo of Concerto No.3, due to the key of A flat major, the dense texture and predominance of a low tessitura. Tense emotions culminate in the brief virtuoso cadenza, as if soaring to the stars, then slowly returning to earth. But the love aria is never sung to the end: now the finale begins, an energetic rondo that draws into its circle snatches of melodies, brief exclamations, the turmoil of featureless elements and joyful cries from participants in this universal Bacchanalia… Then, unexpectedly, everything falls quiet and the round dance disperses for the appearance of ideal beauty – the dreamy Adagio theme. Reminiscences such as this, when music seems to recall its own past, subsequently become a characteristic of Beethoven’s later works.


Larisa Kirillina, translation by Patricia Donegan


Text of the booklet "Ludwig van Beethoven. Complete Piano Sonatas, vol.6. IGOR TCHETUEV"


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